The Dystopia Files: It Can’t Happen Here
Sinclair Lewis wrote this political satire of American exceptionalism in the early 1930s, when one in four Americans were out of work and the complacent assumptions he’d ridiculed in Babbitt were rasped away by real poverty. What most Americans assumed couldn’t happen on the economic front had happened, and even more had happened in Germany, Italy and Russia, with the rise of nationalist totalitarian regimes. So Lewis aimed his satire at the smug assumption of the American politician and parochial patriot that a despotic, militant, nationalist tyrant and, consequently, organized atrocity, were foreign, or only possible elsewhere.
It Can’t Happen Here is not a futuristic dystopia. Published in 1935, the book covers the span between 1936 and 1939. In that three years the United States becomes a totalitarian dictatorship by election of a folksy despot to the highest office in the country, the American equivalent of a General Secretary (Stalin), Chancellor (Hitler), or Prime Minister (Mussolini). Like his contemporary totalitarian dictators, President Berzelius Windrip assumes the idiosyncratic character of the nation he subjugates, complete with private goon squad and personality cult. Lewis obviously saw that the economic and social conditions that had given birth to other totalitarian nation-states existed here and that, given a politician who could exploit those conditions, such a regime was possible, if not probable.
The book follows Windrip’s election and rule through a central figure, Doremus Jessup, a newspaper editor in Fort Beulah, Vermont. Jessup, a self-described “small-town, bourgeois intellectual,” informs the social and political circumstances and provides the everyday experience of the Windrip regime. So well saturated is the narrative with current events and cultural figures that it verges on zeitgeist journalism. Actual Media personalities, politicians, literary figures, cultural programs, historic events, movements and organizations are so densely woven into the narrative that the book is as much factual warehouse as fictional send-up. Such referential density against a popular taste for leaner fiction could be the reason that It Can’t Happen Here had dropped from bestseller to obscure classic by the year 2000. Or perhaps its cheeky and trivializing satirical mode was no longer understood or considered pertinent. But history comes round, and, with the election of President George W. Bush, the book’s political caricatures and social conditions became relevant again.
The election of Windrip—later, “Our Leader”—takes off from his term as senator of Illinois, a position in which he distinguished himself as “…a tireless traveler, a boisterous and humorous speaker, an inspired guesser at what political doctrines the people would like, a warm handshaker, and willing to lend money.” Policywise, he’s credited with building highways and schools, doling out State contracts for agriculture and quadrupling the state militia by offering its members training in agriculture, aviation, radio and automobile engineering. Though a Democrat, he manifests a military-industrial bent early in his career. Due to political vulnerability to the “church people” for his gambling, drinking and womanizing, he avoids a run for governor; rather, he coaxes a “passive schoolmaster” into that office. In essence, he’s the quintessentially effective American politician: indefatigably in character, strategically congenial, fiscally generous, evasive of opponents, supportive of industrial-military might, folksy and comfortably corrupt.
Much like Dubya’s campaign under Karl Rove, “the architect,” Windrip is groomed for the presidency by Lee Sarason, “the brain behind.” Sarason, in whose “long hands there was bloodless strength,” is an evocation of Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda. A machine gunner in the Great War, Sarason stayed in Europe for several years, dabbling in Black Magic, habituating Berlin dives and, no doubt, witnessing the rise of the Führer firsthand. On return to the United States he becomes a hardboiled reporter, a socialist and anarchist, and, lastly, a totalitarian: “…[he] had lost his trust (if any) in the masses during the hoggish nationalism after the war; and he believed now only in resolute control by a small oligarchy. In this he was a Hitler, a Mussolini.” Before coming on board with Windrip, Sarason is the editor of the biggest daily newspaper in the country. Officially, he serves as Windrip’s secretary, body guard, ghost-writer, press-agent, economic advisor, campaign manager and, after Windrip’s election, Secretary of Sate.
Taking a page from Mein Kampf, Sarason publishes Zero Hour–Over the Top, Windrip’s propagandistic autobiography, written from interviews. This was a “…salty book and contained more suggestions for remolding the world than the three volumes of Karl Marx and all the novels of H.G. Wells put together.” Lewis begins chapters five through twenty with a quote from Zero Hour, the first being a recrimination of the press for “calumniating Statesmen,” an hypocritical rant that ends in a parabolic portrayal of political office as a throne around which “beats” a “fierce light.” The final quote is pure anti-Zionist propaganda, complete with the sort of historical spin you’d find in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Hitler’s justification for the Final Solution. It launches chapter twenty, the chapter in which the brutality of the Windrip regime is brought home to Jessup with his arrest and imprisonment and the peremptory execution of his son in law.
Windrip’s propaganda proves effective, falling on the ready ears of a nationalist populist movement, The League of Forgotten Men. The Forgotten Men, like the present-day Tea Party, belong to the same conservative libertarian populism that arises in the more depressed and marginalized regions of the country. They number twenty-seven million, numerous compared to the Tea Party, though the registered membership of the latter (sixty-seven thousand) is estimated to be only a tenth of its total following. The Forgotten Men follow a right-wing evangelical preacher, Bishop Peter Paul Prang, likely based on the father of tele-evangelism, Herbert W. Armstrong, who in 1933 founded the first radio ministry, the Worldwide Church of God.
Just as hard times stimulate religious fervor, driving many to explanations and deliverance in the supernatural, they also drive the popularity of politicians who issue immediate, universal fixes and assume melodramatic postures of strength, decisiveness and determination. When Windrip takes the Democratic nomination, his only real opponent is Roosevelt, who has founded the Jeffersonian Party, which is virtually ignored by voters though unanimously supported by all the liberal members of Congress, Democratic and Republican. On the Republican side, the candidate is Senator Walt Trowbridge, who is faulted with “entrenched special privilege,” due to that inveterate Republican tendency to legislate for wealthy industrialists and financiers. And so the choice comes down to Windrip or the “coolly thinking men” of the Jeffersonian party and Roosevelt. “The conspicuous fault of the Jeffersonian Party, like the personal fault of Senator Trowbridge, was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for the frisky emotion, for the peppery sensation associated, usually, not with monetary systems and taxation rates but with baptism by immersion in the creek, young love under the elms, straight whiskey, angelic orchestras heard soaring down from the full moon, fear of death when an automobile teeters above a canyon, thirst in the desert and quenching it with spring water—all the primitive sensations which they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.”
Like Hitler his SS, Windrip amasses a private army he dubs the Minute Men, after the rapid-response teams formed of the militias in the American Revolutionary War. The original Minute Men were recruited from individuals under the age of thirty who demonstrated exceptional enthusiasm, political devotion and physical strength; Windrip’s Praetorians are culled from the young, unemployed, abject and angry men of which the country is replete, and from that very state militia he quadrupled during his term as senator. The typical Minute Man is parodied in the character of Shad Ledue, Jessup’s incompetent, ignorant, indolent and insolent handyman, who, rising through the MM ranks, vindictively surveils and terrorizes Jessup and his family, despite Jessup’s understanding that “‘Shad came from a family of twelve underfed brats up on Mount Terror. Not much chance.’” Once elected, Windrip inducts his protection squadron into a federal paramilitary force, as Hitler did, in which capacity they serve as his private army and hit squad.
During his campaign, Windrip issues his “Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Men.” This is basically an agenda for federal seizure of labor organizations, the financial sector, corporate profits and private fortunes, federal suppression of political and religious thought and belief, military build-up “solely for the purpose of ensuring world peace and amity,” and consolidating power under the Executive branch by amending the Constitution to “give the President authority over the conduct of government.” However tyrannical in content, the fifteen points are proclaimed in that spirit of patriotic nationalism invariably evoked by politicians who violate extant laws and liberties. There’s no better example of this than the Bush Administration, with its slogans like “Ownership Society,” “Operation Enduring Freedom” and “Clear Skies Act,” with its rallying around the flag, war profiteering, secret prisons, military tribunals, extraordinary rendition (abduction and torture), enormous security apparatus (The Department of Homeland Security), domestic wiretapping, gratuitous wars and policies not formulated by the President himself but by those just under him (Dick Cheney and Karl Rove). In fact, the Bush Administration so parallels Windrip’s that it might be credited with the book’s resurgent popularity.
By presidential mandate, Windrip divides the United States into eight provinces, each divided into numbered districts, in turn divided into lettered counties, then townships and cities which retain their original names. These divisions are governed by provincial, district, county and assistant county commissioners, respectively. He guts the Supreme Court down to four unknown lawyers and “terminates” all political parties except his own, “The American Corporate Sate and Patriotic Party.” Introduced by Sarason, “Corpoism” is lifted from fascist Italy’s corporatism, which was Mussolini’s “third way” between capitalism and socialism, a form of government that consolidated labor, industry, business and state sectors into corporate groups. The Windrip Administration similarly divides all occupations into six classes: “…agriculture, industry, commerce, transportation and communication, banking and insurance and investment, and a grab-bag class including the arts, sciences, and teaching.” All labor organizations are taken over by Syndicates of workers and Syndicates and Confederations of employers, combined into six federal Corporations controlled by the National Council of Corporations. This National Council is permanently chaired by Sarason, who is given the deciding vote and total control of the debate and Council membership.
In a few years the country declines into total government control of the media, prison camps for suspected dissidents and “non-Americans,” programmatic torture and assassination, racial segregation, nepotism, fiscal ruin, legislative and infrastructural breakdown, and, in the end, war with Mexico for being an ostensible threat to world peace. Windrip basically sows the seeds of his own ruin and is deposed by Secretary of State Lee Sarason, who is deposed by Secretary of State Dewey Haik, who is deposed by the revolutionary forces of “The American Cooperative Commonwealth.” By the end of the book the United States is a broken country, torn by revolutionary militias and military juntas, and more closely resembles a banana republic than a modern federal one.
While It Can’t Happen Here presents an extreme-case scenario, no book to my knowledge so accurately portrays what could befall this country in a time of uncertainty and desperation. Even as political satire, the madness surrounding the election of presidents is all too cogent here. So long as he arouse unity against an ostensible evil, stand for an ostensibly common good, win the trust of the common folk, have the right people marketing him and promise $3,000 to every household (or, most recently, a nominal tax rebate in the form of a personal check from the President of the United States), a Windrip could take office. I can’t recommend a better campaign-year read.
@2011 Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.